Organ prospects in Poland and the rest of Europe throughout the centuries from the Baroque till the end of the nineteenth century

Seminar Paper, 2000

12 Pages

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Table of contents


1.1 Structure
1.2 Different styles

2.1 A new design of the organ case
2.2 Iconographic meaning of the decoration
a) origin of the theoretical principles
b) concerting angels
c) the music of the spheres
d) a microcosmos matching the macrocosmos
e) religious symbols
e) heraldic motifs
f) vegetative decoration







When visiting a church the first thing I always do is walking a stretch towards the altar to turn around at the end to see if there is any thing interesting the building possesses, the organ.

In a church there are grosso modo two art works which are the most important, the altar and the organ (except of course of some special objects in separate chapels for example. The organ has got its meaning in its architectural insertion in the church space, as a equal counterpiece of the altar; a monumental, elaborated, sculptured and painted piece of art.

Seen from the high altar in the church, it usually rose like a facade of a fantastic building. Many organs have this very monumental outlook. Most organs are enclosed at the back, sides and front in a case of wood (oak, mahogany, walnut-tree or deal) which serves as a protection of the inner mechanism and pipe work from external injury as well as rendering the working of its movements when in operation less audible. The organ case always became richly ornamented (except for modern organs) to bring the instrument in perfect keeping with other carved wood work of the church edifice.

Interesting, what art is concerned, is that only the facade, the part which should be visible for the public, was very elaborated with immediately behind and to the sides, provided that the organ was not standing free in the space, often only rough, unpoiled wood without any painting or sculpture.

1. The prospect:

The most important part of the organ case is of course the prospect. Some organs only have a prospect and no side and back side, while others are free standing on the rood-loft. The form and style of the prospect always directs itself in some way to the characteristics of the church building. Gothic churches nearly always contain elegant, high, vertical organs where in huge, large Baroque churches one can notice this broad late Baroque, Rococo, and Romantic organs (this last is the case in the Cathedral of Esztergom in Hungary, a cathedral which originated in the Roman period but became transformed throughout the times, especially in the Baroque period.)

The same romantic organs are also to be seen in huge Basilica’s of the 19th century, for example in the Stephan’s basilica in Budapest and in the Dom zu Berlin. Neo-Gothic organs are built in (Neo-)Gothic cathedrals (for example the Dominican Church in Cracow and the Votiv-Kirche in Wien).

1.1 Structure:

The prospects of all organs have some common features. Nearly each organ has a symmetrical view, left and right form an balanced whole. The pipes are always positioned in some floors, (Stockwerke). Pipes are taken together into towers or spread out into fields. Some parts are more on the forground while others are more stepping back. Organ fields are covered by beautiful sculptured or melted curtains, the towers are crowned by galeries and parapets which tops end in stars and other ornamentation.

Especially important for the depth perspective is the Rückpositiv, which looks like a smaller version of the Main Organ. The organ case is usually divided, horizontally, into two stages either by an impost or by a bold moulding; and vertically, into numerous compartiments, by pilasters, or by buttresses. The compartiments below the impost are usually filled in with panelling work all round, except in front, towards the centre, where the claviers are in most cases located.

The front of the organ-case above the impost is generally formed into a series of open-work compartments an arrangement that is so far advantageous to the tone of the instruments. What the division of the organ in floors is concerned, with a Baroque and late-Baroque organ with three manuals the conventional position is: 1. the Brustwerk (Choir Organ), the third manual which is sounding in front of the organ player, 2. above the Brustwerk the Hauptwerk (Great Organ) is situated, which is the main organ, usually the second manual or the first manual.

3. And on the top the Oberwerk (Swell Organ) is finishing the three part structure. On the both sides the tree part structure is closed by the towers, and on the back of the organ player by the Rückpositiv. Nice with Rococo organs is that this Swell Organ is really towering or peaking out above the organ structure (see illustrations).

The positionment of the pipes then can be as follows:

- towers: placed in a projecting semicircle.
- pointed towers: pipes standing in an angle.
- niches: groups of pipes inclining inwards, semicircularly.
- breasted compartiment: the middle part which is a little rounded forwards, many times to be seen at organs in Germany.
- ogee form: pipes that are placed curvilinearly, typical for Rococo pipe arrangements.
- flats: arrangements of pipes in a straight line with the largest pipes placed at the corners and the small ones in the middle or, vice versa, the smallest at the extremes and the largest at the centre.
- flat towers are for example to be seen in the organ at the church of Klosterneuburg near Vienna in Austria.

The sculptures which are hiding the triangular space between the end of the prospect pipes and the edge of the organ case are called Schleierbretter in German. And the artistic wealthy decorations at the sides of the organ case, many times very detailed and curled are the so- called ears (Ohren) of the organ. The prospect pipes often are not playing pipes but made out of wood and painted in silver colour. This is rather not advisable because of acoustic reasons.

1. 2 Different styles:

The organ case was usually modified to comply with the style of the given period and with architectural style of the churches of those times for which the organs were designed but the basic principle of composition, determined by the structure of the mechanism, remained unchanged. The purpose was to group pipes according to size and weight in what were frequently constrasting or harmonious combinations which give the typical tall and symmetrical effect. In this paper I will describe the organ facades from the Baroque till the Neo-Gothic style because it is between those periods that the organ style was the most ‘glorious’.

From the beginning of the 15th century one can begin to distinguish differing tendencies of structure and composition in style leading to two fundamentally different types of European organ cases, the South and North European, with a number of intermediate forms in between. Into Poland the organ was introduced from Western Europe in the early Middle Ages by religious orders (mainly Dominicans and Cistercians). The organ builders were active mainly in Kraków, Poznan, Torun and Gdansk. Nationality had no importnace for the art of organ building was more universal in character than other crafts.

For all organs the different arrangement of stops for example called for a different arrangement of pipes and so too for a suitable case to accomodate the instrument. The large organ with many stops and with the design of the organ cases typical of Northern Europe was developed in the Netherlands in the 15th century and quickly spread to Germany as well as to northern France and England. With the experience in the Gothic and Renaissance periods the organ builders introduced improvements that led in the early 17th century to the development of the Baroque organ.

2. The Baroque:

The Baroque attained its full power in 1690-1720. Without basically altering the structural form developed in the early 17th century, it marked the complete victory of a new motif, namely the acanthus -the tendrils, leaves, coils and flowers. The Baroque organ is a term used by instrumentologists and musicologists to designate the north European organ whose structural design was developed by Dutch and German organ builders. This type of organ soon swept across and conquered the countries of Central Europe, supplanting the former Italian type of organ with its narrower spectrum of tones and which was of smaller size.

2. 1 A new design of the organ case:

Where Gothic and Renaissance organs were flat, the Baroque organ case became more vertically pronounced, larger, with more decoration, with many corners and later also gradually undulating. Polyglonal and angle towers were replaced by semi-circular towers, often arranged in symmetrical composition. Three dimensional free standing figures also began to grow in size and to expand into larger ensembles enhancing the universal iconograpnic program by an addition of new versions.

The different arrangement of pipes in the northern type of organ was due to the reasons of acoustics and contrasting tone color. The soaring space of the Gothic Cathedral created different acoustical conditions than the Italian churches with their less pronounced verticality. From the 16th and 17th century on the organ case really became an architectonical monumental staged “building”, enlarged with several towers. The same decorative elements of the facade of the church, the edges of the altar painting and smaller side altar paintings are also repeated in the organ facade.

This explains the tall vertical lines in the slim Baroque organs, congruent with the style of the Church. Best suited for the Gothic interior was the North European organ built on the principles of a massive form with strongly pronounced vertical accents in the organ case (especially a characteristic of French organs) and with the slender forward protruding towers that enclosed the large pipes.

Most numerous and rather typical Baroque are the example of the three tower organ-cases. Sometimes, especially in France and dealing with larger organs, we find up to five towers or even seven in the later Baroque period. An inseparable division of the large northern organ is the detached positive. It was usually placed toward the front and built into the balustrade of the choir.

Another significant, though not as prevalent, an part of the organ, found only in the largest instruments are the detached bass towers, known as Hamburgian , that are set apart from the main organ-case and placed outside the balustrade on both sides of the main section.

The third feature of Northern organ-cases, which is also of interest from the acoustical standpoint, is the tower finial. It was fashioned in the form of a polygonal lantern turret with acoustical function and with open work walls as well as dome shaped, also from the interior, crownings. Their purpose was to direct the sound of music to the interior of the church, to stop it from escaping into the upper regions of the soaring space of the Gothic nave. The three features were designed to magnify the volume of sound, to make it powerful enough to fill the tall spaces of the northern Gothic Cathedrals.

The ornamentation of this group of organ cases represents various modifications and stages of Mannerism and of northern Baroque softened at times by classical elements. Instead of architectonic logical divisions characteristic for the Renaissance period, now the lavish plant and figurative ornamentations came up, and together with that the profusion of hermas, pinnacles, gables, crownings, consoles and projections.

2. 2 Iconographic meaning of the decoration:

Important is to notice that the architectonic design of the organ cases and the meaning of the architectural orders and decorative motifs ornamenting the various parts of the organ structure were not at all incidental or merely decorative. They submitted to specific rules that were subordinated on the one hand, to the principles of construction of musical instruments and on the other, that stemmed from theoretical prinicples. The same ideological programme of organ cases applies to both main types as well as to all intermediary types.

a) origin of the theoretical principles:

The theory on which the decoration based itself was fully formed at the close of the Middle Ages, and elaborated in the 16th and 17th centuries, The ideological programme of decoration also contained ideas which reach back to the ancient times (Pythagoras and Plato). During the Counter Reformation certain elements of this programme became emphasized.

Immediately catching the eye are the figures of angels playing different instruments standing on the towers or sitting at the corners. These figurative representations took their inspiration from two principal sources. One is the Book of Psalms of the Old Testament and the Holy Bible as a whole as well as the writings of the Church fathers and the lives of saints. The second source were the ancient and medieval theories about the value and meaning of music adopted by the Christian doctrine and subordinated to its ideological goals. Interesting is that the Pythagorian theory about music, the concept of Musica mundana, a music that embraces the universe, the music of the spheres, produced by the rotation of the planets, became reinterpreted in the Christian tradition as musica angelica, or the voice of God. Instrumental music was a part of musica profana and as a consequence not holly and of lower value. Musica angelica was the highest music representing the choirs of angels or cherubs and produced by mechanically revolving suns and stars which also emit a delicate tinkling sound of bells. Quite often the program was enhanced by the figure of King David playing a harp and St. Cecilia with a model of an organ or a portative symbolizing the concept of musica humana.

b) concerting angels:

Translated into decorative motifs on many Baroque organs one can distinguish concerting angles, a figure of King David playing a harp and St. Cecilia playing an organ. The concept of concerting and singing angels became a decorative element under influence of neoplatonism in the Middle Ages, were everything was linked to God and the Virgin Mary and the Christian vision of the paradise as it was depicted by Dante in its Divina Comedia and by Marcino Ficino and Pico Della Miranodola.

c) the music of the spheres:

Around the beginning of the fifteenth century of the instrumentalists on top or at corners of the organ became semiotized as pagan Gods playing to “move the spheres”. In the general accepted thinking of the Middle Ages in the theory of Boetius, which based himself partly on the works of Plato and Pythagoras the angels are not only the plastic visualisation of the Psalms of David but above all they illustrate the divine music of the spheres. Adoring Muze- angels contributed to the creation of the cosmic harmony, which was interpreted as the voice of God and of angel choirs, the music of paradise which of course was perfect because everything that God had created had to be perfect. As a consequence all artefacts made by man tried to imitated and this perfection in their being perfectly symmetrical and in their symbolic reference.

When around the beginning of the 17th century the organ became a really mighty sounding big instrument the architectural and plastic monumentality had to serve as a worthy reflection and representation of this impressive sound. Many the Baroque organs have on each tower a playing figure and now the concerting angels-muses carry often two types of objects in their hands. Normal musical instruments, like trumpets and harps but also “instruments” of the cosmic music such as virulating gilded stars and suns which were also symbolically and energetically are connected with the powerful and artistic aspects of the sound and the mechanism of the organ and at the same time symbolizing the celestial bodies circling in the cosmos, which are, by this circling, contributing to the perfect harmony of spheres.

d) a microcosmos matching the macrocosmos:

What this perfection is concerned, in the Baroque, connected to scientific discoveries, the conception of the reality was a microcosmos in a macrocosmos. Everything was in its essence the same. The world had to be perfect because God and the universe was perfect. In this way all artifacts had to carry this reflective aspect of the big in the small (part) and the small in the big (whole) effect.

Very typical for Baroque organs is the aspect of the positive, Rückpositiv, which nearly in each case is a copy of the central area of the main organ. Very often it is just a copy of the whole prospect of the big organ,only smaller in size, or it is built up of different fragments of the main part. Some times the organ case had to represent a symbolic architectural reconstruction of the Heavenly Jeruzalem, surrounded by walls and towers and again perfect in its being.

e) religious symbols:

Next to instrumentalists, also often scenes with the figure of the Virgin Mary are represented, like the Annunciation, the Assumption, the Coronation, the Adoration and the Glorification of Our Lady, as well as the Madonna with her Child Jesus. Symbols of the Virgin Mary and Christ are also popular. These are the hirograms IHS for Jesus Christ and the monogram M for the name Mary often circled by a radiant aureola. The Dove and the Holy Ghost, the Eye of Providence, the Father and the Trinity are pictured in a similar way. Carved figures of saints frequently adorn the organ cases. They are usually the patrons of the church, of the monastic rule and order to which the church belongs, or of the city in which it is located and finally the guardian saints of the founders.

In addition to the eagle and the pelican, symbols of Christ and the Church, we also find birds of paradise, the nightingale and the cuckoo. So in general the acoustic effect was deliberately heightened by the many visual impressions, as well as the visual acting of the figures on top of the towers, were designed to intensify the acoustic effects and to enhance the impact made on the inmagination of the faithful people sitting in the church.

e) heraldic motifs:

Heraldic motifs represent a separate question. Beginning from the 15th century, the heraldic bearings begin to change their position rising from the low to the upper areas of the organcases until in the Baroque period they come to occupy a position in the crownings that were formerly reserved for religious subjects. Many other ornamental motifs evolved together with the style of the given period. They were widely used in the decoration of the organ cases in the same way as in the remaining church furnishings.

f) vegetative decoration:

Another important feature are vegetative decorations of the organ. Foliation is an ornamental motif of fundamental importance. Principally employed for this purpose are the vine and acanthus whose coils, tendrils, leaves and flowers constitute an enduring and virtually indispensable element of the plastic adornment of organ cases across several centuries. The acanthus became a perennial decorative motif.

Leaves of palm trees symbolized the cross of Jezus, mourning and martyrdom. All the decorative components of the organ-cases, the crowning pieces, gables, S-scrolls, friezes and decorative wing forms were interwined in the coils of the acanthus. A good example of this kind of organ cases are the organ in the cathedral of Sandomierz, the St. John Church in Torun and the Holy Cross Church in Kraków.

Next to the acanthus are, of plants and floral motifs, also popular sprays of small flowers, tulips, sun flowers and above all roses. And to complete this range of decorative motifs, apart from plants, anthropo-zoomorphic motifs too have a significant symbolic meaning, principally the human and animal (especially lion) heads, although we also find masks of semi-fantastic creatures and similar deptictions of birds.

3. Regency:

At the beginning of the 18th century the position of the pipes is changing. The inner side of the organ is directing itself towards the representative side, and not vice versa the organ prospect towards the inner structure. In the nineteenth and twentieth century both elements even become completely independent from each other. The Regency, the reigning style between 1720 and 1750, didn’t introduce significant changes in the architecture of the design of the organ -cases. Only proportions became modified, as did the early period of Neo-Classicism 1760-1790.

A manifest tendency towards monumentalism and stage effects was pursued. The organ cases of the Cistercian group in Lad are a good example for this. Organs with broad facades emerged, the towers arranged in sections linked in a symmetrical pattern. Organ case of St. Anne in Kraków and in Jedrzejów are fine examples.

4. Rococo:

In the Rococo period the architectural design of the organ cases changed very thoroughly. Form became more important than content. In the larger organs the design of the Regency is continued and expanded. The traditional designs of Renaissance and Baroque developed about 1550-1600 persisted side by side with the picturesque new forms, especially produced in small and medium sized organs. The positive on the balustrade gradually disappeared, it became integrated into the main case.

As regards to the quantity and wealth of forms of organ cases, the Rococo (a style in which also many Viennese organs are built) represents the dominant style in Poland. It was the prevailing style in 1750-1790 marking an important developent in the structure of the organ- cases. A very large number of outstanding examples of the Rococo in seemingly countless variations have been preserved in Poland. Most can be classified under the binary compositions the North and the Central European. The northern type was marked by greater conservatism and adherence to the traditional towered form, although these forms were enormously exagerrated or simplified. For the Central European group typical were the undulating ranked members arranged in an asymmetrical convex-concave composition.

The facades of the organs, many times also painted white with gilded ornamentations, began to undulate almost exclusively with concavo-convex lines while the logical proportions in evidence so far began to lose their meaning. Often also the organ case itself was split into two separate parts placed on two sides of the central window that admited a shaft of natural lights into the church, af feature of baroque design. A beautiful and famous example of this type of organ is the organ in the Cathedral of Oliva in Gdansk. The organ case there is carved out of black wood, and is really nearly hanging around the window.

Dramatic towering cases or the expanded screen facades with concavo-convex lines or with noticeable lower and often recessed central sections were built in the area that was subject to the influence of Catholic Habsburg art. This type of organ case was first fully developed in Prague because it was there that we find a coherent group of Late Baroque and Rococo organcases from the first half of the 18th century with a much lower central axis and with a window of stained glass in the background.

In Rococo organs the often seen stage effect was heightened by the decorative design of the organ case that proliferated with a wealth of staging ideas and wide repertory of ornaments. This trend was to reach its peak in the Rococo when the architectural material was almost wholly robbed of its physical properties.

Generally looking at a larger Rococo organ one notices this typical triangular construction. The organ arises from a broad ground floor to ever smaller upper floors. The dynamic undulating facade rose in height adding up to several tiers. The divisions became more picturesque and less restrained, and the pipes often imitated columns. The basic ornament and decorative motif was the acanthus, though it was usually the soft acanthus. It continued to be combined with sprays of small flowers (mainly roses) and the rocaille, this ear-like decoration, many times attached on both sides of the organ case, which appeared alone at times in the same manner as tracery and the grist motif.

Other motifs were asymmetrical vases with fantastic covers which were placed on the cornices and the little putti, often in larger groups romping amids the clouds or playing instruments. Complex effects of perspective are frequent, notably scenic architecture or paintings which, placed in the background, seemed to lend a deeper perspective to the often narrow confines of the choir.

A separate question are the effects achieved by the beams of light that pour through the windows placed behind the organ and by the device of building the organ case so that the natural lights flowing from the outside serves as a symbolic and decorative motif.

Another element often to be seen at Rococo organs is a radiant star which is ‘sticked’ at a central pipe in the middle of the organ. This star is symbolically linked to the motif of the radiant glory. Also many times this symbol of radiant glory was represented by a golden cloud with beams through and behind it, also ‘sticked’ at the prospect or hanging between the two parts of the organ in the frame of the window. The motif of glory took its origin in the Middle Ages and the early Baroque and was represented by the virulating golden stars and suns again linked to the theory of the music of spheres.

5. Neo-styles:

The last important stage of the evolution of the organ case art took place in 1800-1830, and is called the Neo-Classical style. A pure form of it is a highly simplified towerless form, without the internal divisions and with an flat arrangement of pipes,. In this way it resembled the Gothic organ case of the 14th century. The decorative motifs like pilasters, brackets, vases, balustrades, tympani, didn’t have any specific iconographic meaning anymore but only served architectural and decorative purposes.

This type of organ is the last monumental external form of this order for the subsequent neo- styles didn’t introduce any original native ideas to the evolution of organ cases in Poland but followed cosmopolitan, however at times remarkable models. The Neo-Gothic organ-case was said to be typical of the mass-produced organs of the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century.

In Poland the dearth of a large number of original and truly interesting designs is due, in the context of the great number of 19th century organ facades that have been preserved, not only to the first sad period of cultural and economic stagnation after Poland’s loss of independence, but is also the result of the profound change in the structure of the art of organ building, a consequence of the industrial revolution. Despite the high technical standard and despite the wide range of decorative motifs, one notes in the composition as a whole a tendency toward traditional models.

From the Neo-Gothic times on, also visible in Romantic organs, the prospect becomes flat again. The monumental, triangular staged effect disappears to make place for a more rectangular broad organ prospect. Nevertheless the organs still remains very large and the amount of stops and pipes is severly enhanched. Also many new sounds are introduced (like for example voix c é leste, voix humaine, viola da gamba, oboe d ’ amore, ...). Also very low 32’ (Subbass und Posaune) and even from times to times 64’ (only subbass) bass tones are often present among the stops. But organs are not that wealthy decorated anymore, also the use of gold is dispappearing.

Another typical feature for this Eclecticism are the broader towers at the corners of the organs, collecting more pipes (for example ten in a circle) in a larger case.


Just like other art works the organ reflected the different stylistical codes and conventions throughout the times. It always has been a piece of art and the king of instruments. A solemn and mighty sound had to receive an impressive, splendous and richly decorated visual pendant. Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Regency, Rococo and Neo-Gothic organs all had their typical characteristics. Instrumentalists on the top of the bass towers and at the corners all had their specific iconographic meaning, the same counts for symbolical representation of Christ and the Virgin Mary. The real audible, earthy music had always to be connected with the etherical rather inaudible cosmic music of the spheres. The organ case had to imitate the perfection of the creation of the world by God. And in a way the reflection effect of the macrocosmos in the microcosmos was repeated in the insertion of the Rückpositiv, as a copy of the Great Organ in small, in the balustrade.

It is also surprising to see how stylistically different the organ prospects from different times look. A building up in different levels and floors always has been the case and contributed to the edificial view of the instrument. Most organs give this monumental impression, a feeling of sublimeness and beauty and the illusion of perfection, created when one looks to the organ from a distance but disappearing when one investigates it standing just in front of it. The organ can be deemed an independent and magnificent art work, matching with other artefacts made in the same period when it was built and demanding to be preserved throughout the centuries.


ADELUNG, Wolfgang, Einführung in den Orgelbau, VEB Breitkopf und Härtel Musikverlag Leipzig, 1972, 242 p. + ill.

ELLERHORST, Winfred, Handbuch der Orgelkunde, Hilversum, Frits Knuf, 1966, 850 p.

HOPKINS, E.J. and RIMBAULT E. F., The Organ, Its history and construction, Hilversum, Frits Knuf, 1965, 636 p.

SADIE Stanley (ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd 1980, Tom 13, 1980

SMULIKOWSKA, Ewa, Prospekty Organowy w Dawnej Polsce, Wroclaw, Warszawa, Gdansk, Lódz, Wydawnictwo Polskiej Akademii Nauk - Instytut Sztuki, 1989

WILLIAMS, Peter, The European Organ 1450-1850, London, B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1966, 366 p.

Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Allgemeine Enzyklopädie der Musik, Bärenreiter Metzler Sachteil 7, 1997

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Organ prospects in Poland and the rest of Europe throughout the centuries from the Baroque till the end of the nineteenth century
Jagiellonian University in Krakow
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Organ, Poland, Europe, Baroque
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Willemans, Diederik (Author), 2000, Organ prospects in Poland and the rest of Europe throughout the centuries from the Baroque till the end of the nineteenth century, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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